You can tell that Return to Me, co-written and directed by Bonnie Hunt, who also stars in the best friend role, is a chick flick because the car accident in which the beautiful zoo-keeper, Elizabeth Rueland (Joely Richardson), perishes takes place off-screen while the subsequent prostration with grief of her surviving husband, Bob (David Duchovny), is presented in loving detail. Funny what different things men and women want to avert their eyes from. But the film doesn’t quite work, even on its own terms. Set in Chicago, its high concept has Minnie Driver as Grace Briggs, a young woman in need of a heart transplant, who finally gets one from the deceased Elizabeth. A year later, the still grieving Bob and Grace, now restored to health, meet by chance in Grace’s family’s Irish-Italian restaurant and fall in love. Neither of them knows of the already-existing connection between them.
What will happen, do you suppose, when they find out, as inevitably they must? It doesn’t promise a lot of suspense, does it? The only dramatic tension comes from waiting for Grace to tell him — and we know that the telling, when it comes, must ultimately only strengthen the bond between them, even though their first reaction is (rather improbably, I thought) to split up. But no one can suppose for a moment that a great guy like Bob, and a great gal like Grace, will do anything in the end but hurl themselves even more fervently into each other’s arms. Thus lacking in any real tension or conflict, the film turns away into girl talk between Grace and Megan (Miss Hunt), the best friend, and tired ethnic humor about the Italians and the Irish.
The girl talk is more successful than the attempts at ethnic jokes. At one point Megan (Miss Hunt) advises Grace on how to behave on her first date with Bob. “Whatever you do, don’t shave your legs,” she tells her. “Then you won’t let it go too far…Hairy legs are your only link to reality.” The film’s heart-warming ethnicity is represented by Grace’s two grandpas — in addition to having heart disease, she’s an orphan — Grandpa Marty (Carroll O’Connor) and Grandpa Angelo (Robert Loggia), who naturally play not only the ethnic stuff but also the sentimental old codger stuff to the hilt. In the film’s favor, you have to say that it doesn’t go quite so far as to kill off misty-eyed Mr. O’Connor once his prayers are answered and he can give the couple his blessing.
There are naturally a lot of double entendres about Grace’s operation. When she is anxious about how she looks, Grandpa reassures her: “You’re beautiful, and no one’s going to notice your chest.” Later, when he arranges a blind date for her, he tells her: “I told him you had your chest worked on” and — what do you think? — “he had a transplant too!” This turns out to be a hair-transplant, which the jerky recipient invites her to pull. But the best joke in the film may be when Bob, moping at home as usual, tries to reassure his friend Charlie (David Alan Grier) that he is productively employed in watching a Cubs game. Suspicious, Charlie asks what the score is. “Score?” says Bob, reaching for the TV remote and pointing it at the blank screen without result. “Score?” Then, tossing the remote over his shoulder he says, “Cubs are losing.”
Buoyed up by a few more jokes like this one and this unwieldy craft might have stayed afloat, but under the weight of the sorrows not only of Bob and Grandpa Marty and Grandpa Angelo but also of Sydney the gorilla and Mal the dog — to say nothing of an incidentally heart-warming but barely sketched-in romance between two of the old codgers at the restaurant — its attempt to touch the heart goes straight to the bottom.